Safety first?

How do we keep our kids safe online and comply with federal regulations while still maintaining highly functional computer facilities?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I'm all for protecting kids on the Internet.  I doubt that I'm the only IT guy (or gal) out there who would like to keep kids from being stalked on Myspace and downloading video from the latest fetish site.

However, I'm also sure that I'm not the only IT guy (or gal) out there who doesn't struggle regularly to balance functionality with effective content filtering.  Obviously we can't specifically block every naughty website on the Net.  It's difficult to find hard numbers on this, but figures floating around range from 300,000 to almost 2 million pornographic sites on the web.  This doesn't even begin to include all of the sites with drug, hate, and any of several other categories of potentially objectionable content.

So most of us subscribe to some sort of content filtering service, often via a firewall or proxy server.  This leaves it up to an external vendor to decide which websites are "objectionable."  Some services and/or software also allow administrators to block certain keywords that can be filtered out of http traffic.  Don't get me wrong.  This is by no means an anti-censorship rant.  As I noted, I'm all about keeping our kids safe online, and, for that matter, making sure that teachers and staff are using Internet resources for what the 2001 Childhood Internet Protection Act refers to as "bona fide research," rather than surfing for the latest ways to make crystal meth in their basements. 

Rather, this is one IT guy's dilemma: How do I ensure high performance on an already overtaxed network, provide students and staff with a wide variety of diverse content for that above-mentioned bona fide research, keep parents and school committees happy, and continue to comply with the also above-mentioned Children's Internet Protection Act?

By disabling content filtering, I am able to increase download speeds by as much as 20-30%, especially in bandwidth-intensive applications (like our mission-critical web-based student database).  Similarly, I avoid teachers asking me 2-3 times a week to unblock a particular legitimate educational site relating to sex education, Nazi war crimes, drug education, or any number of other sites blocked by our content filters.  At the same time, the minute students get a whiff of the fact that "the firewall's down," videos can't stream fast enough to keep up with an awful lot of very frustrated teenagers.

I have no doubt that some of this could be improved with better hardware, better vendors, and better software.  However, the balancing act between performance, usability, and usefulness vs. safety, appropriateness, and continued government funding will be ongoing, regardless.

So here is my challenge to all of the readers of this blog: How do you do it?  How do you strike that balance and how do you provide the best, most appropriate service to your end users?  Please talk back to share your thoughts and ideas and let all of us struggling educational IT guys (and gals) know what works, what doesn't, and where you'd like to see technology go in the next few years to address this ongoing problem.

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